Loggerhead sea turtles have not been having an easy time. Chronic population declines due to pollution, fisheries, beachfront lighting, and habitat destruction have kept these graceful giants on the threatened species list since 1978. An estimated 50,000 sea turtles are caught in shrimp trawls every year in the Gulf of Mexico.

But things may be looking up for the beleaguered loggerhead now that a joint ruling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has designated a large area as critical habitat for the turtles. The protected area — which pinpoints 685 miles of beaches from Mississippi to North Carolina and 300,000 square miles of ocean off the Gulf and Atlantic coasts as critical nesting and roaming habitat — comprises the largest critical habitat designation in U.S. history, according to a report from Reuters.

Last year, a group of environmental organizations filed a lawsuit to require the government to protect areas crucial to the sea turtles. Species with protected critical habitat are twice as likely to recover than species without protection, says Amanda Keledjian, a marine scientist at the ocean preservation group, Oceana. The new regulations came as a direct result of the lawsuit, Oceana reports.

The area covered includes 70,000 to 90,000 sites used each year for nesting and makes up 84 percent of all known nesting areas for the loggerheads.

Loggerhead hatchlings

Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. (Photo: USFWS/Flickr)

Loggerhead turtles are the most common of all the marine turtle species in U.S. waters, but they face many obstacles. With the largest males tipping the scales at more than 1,000 pounds and with shells measuring more than three feet in length, they are the biggest of all hard-shelled turtles. And while they migrate thousands of miles annually, they return to Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico shores to nest. Mature females will often travel thousands of miles to come back to the very same beach where they were hatched to lay their own eggs. In the wild, they can live to be 50 years old or more.

The designation should have little effect on beachgoers. It does not serve to restrict public access to the shore, nor will it interfere with existing projects – like those combating beach erosion – notes Chuck Underwood from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The public won’t even notice it,” Underwood says.

Those who will notice it – aside from the turtles – will be anyone pursuing federal activity near the protected areas. Projects including new highways, oil exploration/drilling, shipping and fisheries will now be scrutinized for potential impact on the species.

"Given the vital role loggerhead sea turtles play in maintaining the health of our oceans," said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries, "rebuilding their populations is key as we work to ensure healthy and resilient oceans for generations to come." 

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Good news for turtles: U.S. designates massive 'critical habitat' for loggerheads
The newly protected areas account for nearly half of the estimated 1,531 miles of shoreline used by the threatened sea turtles.